Friday, June 8, 2012

BULL%$&# & OTHER OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been, Part 8

I was going to make this column all about my time writing inventory stories for Valiant Comics, and I still will talk about that in a future entry, but then I remembered an experience I had before I got to Valiant. It's an experience I wish I hadn't had, but hey, part of the reason I'm doing this is to put my mistakes out there front and center, so that somebody coming up the same path I took might be able to avoid them.

This is the kind of story that involves real people, real properties, and details that could be tracked down and verified - IF I used real names. I'm not going to. As I have commented in earlier posts, I'm really not interested in being sued for libel, and besides, the important parts are the situations presented and the choices made. Those are the same no matter what I call these guys.

The year was 1993. I was soon to receive my Bachelor's Degree in English from the University of Georgia (a degree that, in and of itself, has helped me get ZERO jobs as a writer), and I was weighing my options as to what I wanted to do after I had the diploma in hand.

I don't remember why I called Bill, a comics artist I considered a friend, but I wound up on the phone with him one spring afternoon. My question of "How's it going?" led him to tell me that he was trying to get a new project off the ground, but wasn't satisfied with the writer he had chosen for it. Summoning up some confidence and bravado that I did not in any way truly feel, I said, "What? You need a writer, and you didn't call me?"

Bill apparently liked my moxie, as it were, and invited me to come to his place and meet the team he'd put together for this thing. It was going to be an ongoing, monthly sci-fi book called GALAXY 799, and just from what Bill told me about it I was intrigued already, so I piled into my sun-faded Ford Escort and went over to Bill's apartment.

And I met The Team: Bill on pencils, a guy my age named Stu doing inks, and a friend of Bill's named Terry who was going to serve double duty as letterer and editor. (The outgoing writer was a guy named Morris, and I remember meeting him once, though I don't recall the circumstances. He seemed nice enough.)

I read the one script Morris had finished, and I saw why Bill wasn't happy with it. In my carefully considered opinion (as if I knew what I was talking about), the pacing was kind of clunky, and the dialogue was way too on-the-nose. I thought I could do better. Bill decided to let me prove it, and gave me the task of re-writing Issue #1.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "Why was this artist handing out jobs? That's not how the industry works." And it's not - at least, not now. But the early 90's was a bizarre time for comic books. A grand, overblown, sort of ridiculous, very bizarre time. I'm not going to get into the particulars and mechanics of it, but the early 90's saw a boom in the business that defied description. Comics that only sold 100,000 copies a month were getting canceled. The best-selling titles moved millions of issues at a time. Some people in the industry made a HUUUGE amount of money.

I was not one of those people. By the time I had a chance at becoming one of those people, that enormous boom had gone bust, and the industry hasn't recovered from it to this day.

At the time, though, that period of prosperity was still very much in effect, and one of the people who had made a gazillion dollars was a guy in Philadelphia named Kurt Norton. He had created his own unique comic book series, found an enthusiastic and loyal audience, and just raked in the dough hand over fist.

Norton had so much money, in fact, that he decided to whip up his own little corner of the industry, populated by creators that he hand-selected and - this is the important part - funded himself. Essentially, Norton said, "Hey, Guy Whose Work I Like. Go make a comic book. Pick your own team. I'll send you the money to pay them, and we'll split the profits."

That was how Bill had gotten into the position he currently held: he was one of Kurt Norton's chosen few.

Anyway. I had my assignment, I was eager to prove myself, and I went home and re-wrote Morris's script for GALAXY 799 #1. I don't remember exactly how long it took me, but I know that I was back at Bill's apartment one week later for another team meeting. I had faxed the script over beforehand, and when I got there, Bill and Terry and Stu all told me how much they'd enjoyed it. "We've definitely made the right choice," Bill said, and I became the official writer of GALAXY 799. It was the first time I had been attached to an ongoing series, rather than a one-shot or a limited-run project. I was over the freaking moon!

We did a lot of dreaming at that meeting. Kurt Norton had sent Bill a breakdown of what the profit split would be at each sales milestone: if we sold 30,000 copies, we'd get X number of dollars, if we sold 60,000 it would be X times 2, or something along those lines. As the number of copies sold got larger, our profit from it reached (to me) astronomical heights. And as writer, I was guaranteed a 20% share when the cash came rolling in.

You know how I knew I was guaranteed that? Because Bill told me. He looked me in the eye and he shook my hand and told me so. I was thrilled; a handshake was certainly good enough for me. I don't think it even occurred to me to get a written contract. Happy as the proverbial clam, I went home, wrote GALAXY 799 #2, and faxed it over to Bill.

This is the point at which everything began spiraling into the toilet.

I heard not a peep out of Bill concerning my script for issue #2. He didn't call. Nothing. So, when I showed up for the next team meeting, I was quite surprised when Bill pulled out my script and, addressing everyone, said, "Well, it's obvious this isn't very good. It's basically just a re-hash of issue 1." He went on to rip the story apart as if I weren't even in the room.

Full disclosure: the script for issue #2 WASN'T very good. I was still so green as a writer I could've been mistaken for Kermit the Frog, and yes, there were things about the script that were probably pretty stinky. But for anyone out there interested in becoming an editor or, say, someone who manages a group of writers, believe me when I say that it is a REALLY BAD IDEA to ambush a writer in front of a group of people and rip his work apart. Particularly if he hasn't had the chance to fix what might be wrong with it or, worse yet, doesn't even know you had a problem with it.

I was humiliated and furious. I tried to defend the script, but Bill calmly told me - still in front of everyone - how wrong I was, and how my work wasn't good enough, and that I had better fix it or I'd be out the door.

I was humiliated and furious, yes, but I also really wanted this job. Doing my best not to choke on it, I swallowed every bit of my pride and got to work improving the issue #2 script.

For the next three weeks, though, Bill's behavior got more and more erratic. Part of not having a contract was that there were no clearly delineated roles; I thought I was part of a team, whereas Bill apparently thought that, since he was the connection to Kurt Norton's money, he was the project, and we were all just his minions, to do exactly as we were told with no questions asked.

Sometimes that works. Truly. There are visionaries who spearhead projects like that successfully, and if you don't like it, you'd better get the hell out of their way. Sometimes that works - but this was not one of those times.

Bill started talking about taking the series in directions that just baffled me, and if I voiced any objections, he shut me down without listening to anything I had to say. He and Terry went off and had long talks about plot elements and story details, didn't tell me anything about any of it, then acted as if I should already know what they had discussed, and were surprised when that stuff wasn't in my latest draft.

Bill also began referring to the money that Terry and Stu and I were getting for our work as "blood money." He acted as if we didn't deserve it, and that he really didn't want to give it to us, and that if he weren't a man of his word, he definitely would not honor our agreement. He scowled as he handed us our checks and said, "Fine! Go on, take it."

Things came to a head at one team meeting when Bill said that a wordless panel I had written "was okay, except you left out the dialogue."

I said, "Huh? Oh - no, that's a silent panel. Nobody says anything there."

Bill looked at me as if I were cognitively challenged and said, "Okay, well, you need to put in a caption or something."

I stuck to my guns. Foolishly. "No, Bill, it's - see, the guy's running across the roof toward the helicopter. He's by himself. He's got no radio. It's just a silent panel. It's perfect."

Bill turned away from me dismissively, said, "No, it's wrong. Put a caption or something there," and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of the discussion.

Except that by that point I was angry, and didn't understand anything about picking battles, and I said, "Look, Bill, I'm not just going to blindly do everything you say. You hired me to tell a story. I'm not a servant here."

(I was out of line there. It's not unusual - at all - to be summarily overridden in scripting decisions. Editors do it all the time, and only some of the time do they tell you they're doing it. Frequently you find out you've been re-written when you get your copies of the book. HOWEVER, Bill's reaction to my being out of line was to get way way way out of line.)

I don't remember if Bill said anything in response to my little outburst or not, but that night after I got back home, he certainly did respond - through Terry, who called me up and let me know that, because I had a poor attitude, Bill was reducing my share of the profits from 20% to 7%.

I called Bill the next day and, in an uncharacteristic attempt to confront a problem, asked him why he was angry at me. Bill got extremely emotional and agitated and finally said, "You haven't said 'thank you' a single time to me since I brought you on board! It's like you're not grateful at all!"

Now, at that point, I should have said, "Okay, thanks - but no thanks. I'm out of here." Bill had made it very clear that he was the Lord God Almighty as far as GALAXY 799 went, and that the project was going to sink or swim according to his whims, and at that point I had zero faith in his ability as a storyteller or as a leader.

But three things kept me in place:

  1. The lure of all those comics-related millions still dangled in front of me
  2. I had seen other contracts, and even 7% of the profits was a lot more than the 1.2% or 1% or 0.5% that other writers got
  3. I was, deep down inside, kind of a little drip with no self-esteem.

So I smoothed things over with Bill the best I could, and I wrote Issue #3, and I dutifully faxed it in. I was determined, this time, to get Bill's feedback on it before the next team meeting, so I called him - and got his answering machine. That was unusual; Bill normally answered after the first or second ring. I tried again - still no pickup. I left a message asking him to call me back. He didn't.

I tried all day the next day. I left another message. Nothing. It was as if Bill had disappeared off the face of the Earth.

The team meeting was set to take place Friday evening - and Thursday night, Terry called me. After a couple of hems and haws, Terry told me that Bill had instructed him to let me know that they wouldn't be using my script for issue #3, and that I wouldn't be getting paid for it. And that was the end of my involvement with GALAXY 799 and with Bill. I haven't spoken to him since.

It's pretty unlikely that this sort of scenario would even come up today, because the comics industry is in no way prosperous enough to have piles of discretionary cash lying around, waiting to be used to fund crazy new projects. But, based on this experience, here are some guidelines I would strongly suggest following:

1) As a freelancer - not somebody trying to break in, willing to take risks so you can finally get that first thing published, but a working freelancer - the only way you should work without a contract is if you're writing for a company that usually works that way, and has a solid reputation for paying its contractors. Otherwise, get a contract.

2) If someone asks you to do work for them otherwise - whether it's a "scrappy startup company" or even a good friend of yours - GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. I would say it's even more important to get things in writing if it is a friend. Clearly delineate exactly what everyone's role is, what each person is going to be doing, and how any money involved is going to be used down to the last penny. Not doing that is a good way for everyone involved to become ex-friends.

3) Once you know exactly what everyone's role is, don't be afraid to stick to that. I'm not saying be a jerk; there's no need to get in anyone's face. But if someone starts to go off the rails on a project, there's nothing wrong with politely addressing the issue and trying to fix it. Going to IHOP with the inker and bitching about the penciler might be fun, but it doesn't solve anything.

4) If you can see that, despite all best efforts, a project is going to go off the rails anyway, don't be afraid to walk away from it. If it's in that bad a shape, you might not be doing yourself any favors by having your name attached to it.

I understand that that last point is sometimes easier said than done, believe me. I've been involved in projects that had, shall we say, drawbacks, but I stuck around either because it was opening new connections for me, or I needed the money, or both. You have to look at these things on a case-by-case basis.

If you get hired to relaunch a major character at DC, for example, and what seems to be the entire Internet descends upon you with torches and pitchforks and tells you that you suck and you're raping their childhood and you shouldn't even be allowed to write checks, well, sometimes you stick with it as long as you can because the publicity you're getting from it is pretty good, and the steady paycheck really helps out in supporting your family. (Not that I'd know anything about that. ::cough:: Firestorm ::cough:: )

But if some guy you've never met before comes up to you at a con and says, "Hey, I'm starting up my own comic company, and I'm looking for writers!" and you start working for him, but then he begins insisting that every story feature the word "scrotum," and when you meet him to discuss the next issue he's being tailed by a plainclothes cop, and then you realize he's living out of his van and wants to give you stock in his company in lieu of pay, it's probably okay if you decide not to hang in there for the long haul.

I'm just sayin'.

(NOTE: neither GALAXY 799, nor the actual book whose title shall remain undisclosed, ever went to press.)

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